Gas station without pumps

2013 July 3

Essay prompts for college applications

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:42
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My son will be applying to colleges this fall, so I’ve started gathering the prompts he’ll need to address in his application essays.  Many of the prompts will not be available until 2013 August 1, when the Common Application opens for this year, since the prompts are hidden on the supplemental forms for the college.  Many college admissions offices have not updated their websites for the year, as they are still asking home-schooled applicants to fill out the Common App home-school supplement, which has been discontinued.

Common Application (these are the questions for 2013–14, applying for admission in Fall 2104):

Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Harvey Mudd College (uses Common App, plus supplemental essay):

Short Answer Response— Please answer the following. (500 word limit)

What influenced you to apply to Harvey Mudd College? What about the HMC curriculum and community appeals to you?

Essay– Choose any one of the essay topics below. (1000 word limit)

1. “Scientific research is a human endeavor. The choices of topics that we research are based on our biases, our beliefs, and what we bring: our cultures and our families. The kinds of problems that people put their talents to solving depends on their values.” -Dr. Clifton Poodry.  How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve?

2. In a world where technology continually adapts and progresses, Harvey Mudd College expects that our students will be aware of the impact of their work on society. How would you use new advances to improve your life and/or the lives of those around you? Describe your idea and its potential impact. Feel free to be as creative or as practical as you like.

3. What is one thing we won’t know about you after reading your application that you haven’t already reported in the Common Application “Additional Information” section?

Stanford (uses Common App, plus supplemental essays):

Candidates respond to all three essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided.

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
  3. What matters to you, and why?

University of California (I think these are valid for 2013–14, but the web site doesn’t actually say, and the only date is a 2010 copyright.  They don’t use the Common App):


All applicants must respond to two essay prompts — the general prompt and either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status.

  • Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total.
  • Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words.

Freshman applicant prompt

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Prompt for all applicants

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

MIT (see also their description of what they are looking for in an applicant). They don’t use the Common App and you have to register on to see the actual questions, so I haven’t—I’ll ask my son to do that:

Rather than asking you to write one long essay, the MIT application consists of several short response questions and essays designed to help us get to know you. Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice – who you are, what drives you, what’s important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be authentic – this is your opportunity to connect with us.

Caltech (uses Common App, plus a supplement, this is last year’s, so prompts need to be checked after Aug 1):

Short Answers

We are interested in learning more about your personality, values and interests. Limiting yourself to the space provided, please answer the following questions.

  1. What keywords would your friends use to describe you?
  2. Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. For each book, please include a sentence explaining their influence upon you. Please note that your response is not limited to math, science or school-assigned texts.
  3. Members of the Caltech community live, learn and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline; “No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty and integrity are sometimes challenging. Share an ethical dilemma that has challenged you. How did you respond? Your response is not limited to academic situations.
  4. Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor and creative pranks. Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun.


Scientific exploration clearly excites you (otherwise you wouldn’t be applying to Caltech). What is it about Caltech’s opportunities and resources that will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and develop your passion for science, technology, math or engineering?

Brown University (uses Common App plus a supplement—this is last year’s but they haven’t got a newer one up yet):

2. Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated?
3. A distinctive feature of the Brown Curriculum is the opportunity to be the “architect of your education.” Why does this academic environment appeal to you?
4. Tell us where you have lived—and for how long—since you were born; whether you’ve always lived in the same place, or perhaps in a variety of places.
5. Complete ONE of the following thoughts:

A. If I could do something with no risk of failing, I would ______________________
B. I felt like I truly belonged when ____________________

6. What is something you created that makes you especially proud, and why?
7. We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you.
8. Please respond to one of the following questions: A, B, or C.

A. Why are you going to college?
B. Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz once said, “Cubism is like standing at a certain point on a mountain and looking around. If you go higher, things will look different; if you go lower, again they will look different. It is a point of view.” With this in mind, describe a moment when your perspective changed.
C. What question could we ask to gain the most insight into you? What is your answer?

Olin College of Engineering (uses Common App, essay questions not available on their web site yet):

How strict are the 500 and 300 word limits on the essays?
In the past, we have not been too strict about the essay length but we do expect students to abide to those guidelines as closely as possible. If you go over by a few words, no worries – we do not sit around counting the number of words in each essay. However, they exist so that we don’t get bogged down in really long essays and are able to actually read everything in everyone’s application files.

Carnegie Mellon (uses Common App, essay prompts not available on their web site yet).


  1. […] Essay prompts for college applications […]

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